Both a force of nature and a lightening rod, Margaret Cho, wants you to know about the importance of orgasms, North Korea and stripping for the homeless. As the co-host of TLC’s All About Sex (and fresh off her controversial stint on the Golden Globes), Cho’s never been one to shy away the taboo. A veteran comedian, musician, author and activist, her shoot-from-hip honesty and cutting wit have earned her both devoted fans and acid critiques over the course of her career. From becoming one of the first Asian-Americans ever to be given her own network sitcom (the short-lived All-American Girl) to her Emmy-nominated stint as Kim Jon-Il and Kim Jong-Un on 30 Rock, she has been one the community’s most visible and outspoken advocates in the entertainment industry.
We recently sat down with her to ask about weathering the recent award-show firestorm, naked busking for charity and her mission to bring America’s TV viewers better sex.
You’ve made fun of North Korea in your comedy and on TV before; why do you think there was such a negative reaction from the Golden Globes’ material now?
I don’t know why. I think it’s fake and I think it’s just people chained to their computers. That’s my conspiracy theory! I am of North Korean and South Korean descent, so it’s actually something that affects my life. My family has been separated by the DMZ for 65 years, so I know this is the one subject that I can really say whatever I like about and it’s very racist to say that I’m not allowed to make fun of my own people.
Do you think it has anything to do with the visibility of Asian Americans in pop culture?
Yes! We have to fight back this cloak of invisibility. You hardly ever see Asian American women on awards shows, but once you do get on, you’re attacked for finally breaking through. It seemed like I was the only thing being talked after the show. That’s shocking. To me it’s disheartening.
You also recently began doing shows in the streets of San Francisco to raise money for the homeless — what prompted that?
I was very depressed after Robin Williams died and a part of his legacy was the activism that he did for the homeless. With Comic Relief he raised $70 million and on his contracts for his movies, he would have a clause where he would demand that a certain percentage of his workers had to be homeless workers. So he was determined to give homeless people a chance to get out and a dignified wage and this was his mission in life. He was always trying to help the homeless and so this was my tribute to him — to just make a little, tiny baby Comic Relief. It was something that I thought this is a beautiful thing to do and helped me get over his death and Joan Rivers’ death by really immersing me in something that’s very serious and that needs attention.
What’s it like to perform your material for crowds in broad daylight?
I started doing a lot of burlesque on the street. Just taking off my clothes and it’s very, very shocking to do that, but it would raise a lot of money. Once you get over that weirdness of being naked in the street, people just love it. They would stick dollar bills in my g-string and afterwards I would give the money to homeless people out of my underwear and they were so excited. These were homeless people who have nothing and who are treated so terribly and to have this naked woman come out with money stuffed everywhere, giving it to them. It was so amazing.
You’ve always been really open about your own alternative relationships and sexuality, so it feels like a natural progression to co-hosting All About Sex on TLC. What can more mainstream viewers learn from you?
I’m just hoping to help people have orgasms. I’m hoping to help women become orgasmic and learn how to enjoy sex on their own terms. Not even just partnered sex, but just to figure out what it is that gets them off, because I think that’s a really important journey for anybody. So, I just hope to some how get people over their fears and shame and make that sort of resolution with themselves to connect with pleasure. Also under the umbrella of sex positivity, I’m trying to introduce people to polyamory and BDSM and any kind of alternative sexuality, and, of course, queer issues, LGBT issues. I’m able to address these issues as someone who as some who is a part of all of these communities.
What was your first encounter with Playboy?
I remember that there were big stacks of back issues in our garage. I am still not exactly sure who they belonged to. They were great — with women with huge ’60s hair and I think at that time I remember there being recipes, but I could be wrong.
What movie scared you most as a kid?
Jaws. It was just scary! The ocean is mysterious and terrifying anyway; I think that movie was just frightening and definitely added to my fear of the sea.
What’s your pop culture blind spot?
EDM. I’m not actively avoiding it, but I’m a musician myself, and with EDM it’s almost as if music took another form and created itself into another creature that I can’t even get my had around.
Let’s pretend you’re on death row — what’s your last meal?
Lots of Korean food with soju [a traditional Korean rice liquor].
What’s the first song you knew all the words to?
“Close to You.” by the Carpenters.
What was your first car?
A gold Buick Le Sabre. It was an old, old hand-me-down from my uncle. When I was 17 a girlfriend and I were at this club and this guy try to pick us up and we were really mean to him. When we left, the car was parked in this weird cornfield; we got in the car and the guy had been waiting for us and he was pissed. He had a tire iron or nunchucks or something. I peeled out, but he knocked the back of the car and knocked the “ick” off the Buick, so it was just a “bu” from then on.
What is the biggest lie you’ve ever told?
I lied my way into a college comedy competition. I’m a high school dropout.